Gentleman Amateurs

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 6:39 pm, 29 January 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I really need to rewrite this, especially as Ben Brumfield sometimes links to it, although it now seems a lot better than I sometimes thought. I now think it would be better to use two axes: academic versus non-academic and paid versus unpaid. There’s also the new identity of ‘citizen historian’ to think about, and 10 years of progress in crowdsourcing. On the WW1 stuff I was speculating about, we now have Lives of the First World War, Operation War Diary and Linking Experiences of World War One.]

[ETA 18/1/2012: This post is nearly 5 years old. My situation has changed a lot since then so whatever is written below might not be true any more.]

[Looks like I won’t be using WordPress 2.1 as my host doesn’t have the right version of MySQL. I should’ve checked that before starting to the upgrade, but everything’s back to normal now.]

A lot of military history bloggers have been debating the distinctions between different types of historian: professional versus amateur, and academic versus non-academic. Mark Grimsley at Cliopatria has summed up and linked to various contributions. Having read all of these, I’ve been trying to work out where I stand, which necessarily involves working out how my own “career” and experiences fit in with what has already been said. Unsurprisingly, I think that binary oppositions are an oversimplification. Mark identifies the two oppositions (professional versus amateur, and academic versus non-academic) as meaning essentially the same thing. In the terms of the debate that he’s describing this is probably more or less true, but I’d like to make things more complicated.

I’ll be trying to work out the differences between academic, non-academic, amateur, and professional by looking at various criteria, but first I have to work out what I mean by “historian”. This is even more difficult. Some people might take a narrow view that only academics or professionals can be true historians. I’m looking for a more inclusive definition but that risks making the term meaningless. We could define “historian” as anyone who writes about history. But how much writing do you have to do to qualify? Even posting on a forum or commenting on a blog is writing about history. Do you even have to write at all? Just reading books involves a certain amount of judgement, especially when two books obviously disagree with each other. Readers then have to make their own decisions about what to believe. In that sense everyone can be a historian. So no, I can’t find a useful definition of “historian” but I’m going to carry on despite that fundamental flaw.

Qualifications:

Most bloggers in this debate have identified the PhD as one of the key things which separates academics from non-academics (whether those non-academics are amateur or professional). Authors of successful and well-researched books can feel that their books would be taken more seriously by academics if they had a PhD. This shows that a PhD is perceived as significant by both academics and non-academics. However, a PhD on its own doesn’t define an academic. There are various other factors to be considered.

Jobs and money:

Professional implies someone who gets paid for doing history. This can include academics, who are paid to teach history and to write scholarly articles and monographs, and non-academics who make a living from writing successful popular books. The amateur is not professional and not academic.

Having an academic job is a big part of being defined as an academic. I have a PhD but no job, so I’m not quite a proper academic. Even with a PhD and a history related job, you might not necessarily be considered an academic. The academic job is usually assumed to be teaching or research in a university.

Publication:

Having your work published doesn’t necessarily make you academic or professional. There are non-academic books, which academics often dismiss as “popular”. This can be an inaccurate description, because non-academic history books don’t necessarily sell in large numbers or make lots of money. Some authors make enough money out of writing popular books that they can live on it, and therefore be considered professional authors. Others make little or no money out of their publications and write as a hobby while doing a day job to earn enough money to live on. Academics don’t necessarily get much money for their publications unless they cross over into the popular market, in which case they might be looked down on by other academics.

Getting an article in a respected peer-reviewed journal is an essential step for any academic career (and one more reason why I’m not a proper academic). The next step is the book. It seems to be generally expected that everyone will want to turn their thesis into a monograph. I think my thesis would make a terrible book, and there’s no way I could bring myself to write a book like that. Even if I could find a publisher willing to take it on (doubtful, but there’s at least one potential suspect) it would most likely be read by no more than ten people. And still people ask me when I’m doing the book of thesis or why haven’t I done it yet. This fetishizing (it’s a cliche but I had to use it) of obscure monographs effectively means that your fellow academics will respect you because of a book they have never read and have no intention of reading! Therefore, non-academic historians shouldn’t necessarily feel bad about not being judged solely on the quality of their work, because academics aren’t either.

Quality and importance of work:

I subscribe to the view that works need to be judged on their own merits. If the research and writing are good, qualifications don’t matter. I put this into practice in my own PhD thesis by citing the works of non-academic historians such as Alan Turton and John Tincey, whose work I admired and found useful. Alan and John both write for Partizan Press, a publisher specialising primarily in books on the English Civil Wars aimed at wargamers, re-enactors, and other amateur enthusiasts (a niche market which demonstrates the inadequacy of the academic description “popular”). This is something that I suspect many academics would look down on, but judged purely on quality and usefulness, their output is worthwhile. My post on Horse Imports: A Zombie Myth demonstrated that basic errors and misunderstandings can be found in the works of academic and non-academic authors alike.

Since getting interested in the First World War I’ve discovered that amateur historians are even more important than I used to think. The Great War Forum is a mine of useful facts which I suspect no academic historian knows. There are many unpaid amateur enthusiasts building databases of all soldiers who served in a particular battalion. At present this effort is fragmented and the data is not easily available to anyone other than the historian compiling the list (they are always happy to answer enquiries, but compared to Web 2.0 this is not what I call “easily available”), but there is huge potential for these sources to grow and interact. This will result in far more knowledge of First World War soldiers, giving unprecedented details of enlistment rates, geographical origins, ages, social background, casualty rates, career progress etc. I don’t see any academic projects offering anything so comprehensive, because academic research projects take a long time to get off the ground and have to compete for limited funding. The amateur approach of just doing it offers to bypass these problems and create a truly new history from below and outside: the historians, as well their objects of study, will be from outside or below the academy. I’m now thinking about how we can bring these people and their work into Web 2.0.

Methodology:

Although amateurs are capable of doing detailed empirical work just as well as academics, academics can do much more besides thanks to their specialised training and experience. I’m excited by First World War databases because they offer answers to interesting questions about the composition of the British Army and its relationship to British society. I get the impression that many amateur researchers don’t have any such purpose in mind when they start building a battalion database. On this thread at the Great War Forum, several researchers admit that they have collected large numbers of names and don’t know what to do with them! The real importance of a PhD is that it trains you to think critically and ask questions. Some historians can be capable of this even without formal training and qualifications, but in general I’d say that amateurs are weakest in this area.

The thing which most divides academics from non-academics is theory. That’s theory with a small t. Academics are divided among themselves over Theory with a capital T, but at a basic level they all agree on the importance of thinking about methodology and historiography, even though there are competing and mutually exclusive approaches. Amateurs are generally much less interested in this (although there can be exceptions) and are more likely to declare that they are only interested in “the facts”. They can be suspicious of even quite traditional objectivist empirical theorizing. For example, there’s nothing postmodern about “epistemic probabilities”, but I wouldn’t dare use a term like that at the Great War Forum! However, there can be exceptions, and the same kind of anti-intellectualism can be found among some academic historians (see Arthur Marwick’s denunciation of philosophy). Conversely, an amateur’s obsession with “the facts” and trainspotterish completism could actually lead to more thorough and complete work than any academic is able or willing to undertake. With restrictions of time and budget, teaching commitments, and the publish-or-die treadmill, academics are under pressure to do just enough and no more. This often means taking samples rather than recording everything.

Conclusions:

That’s about all I have to say, but I’ve probably missed something important. I’m no closer to making any sense or reaching any conclusions, so I’ll have to finish with “can’t we all just get along” platitudes. Academic, non-academic, amateur, and professional historians have different strengths and weaknesses. Web 2.0 might offer an opportunity to bring these different kinds of historians together and allow them to benefit from each others’ work and experience, but it will require different attitudes as well as new technology.

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